One of the highlights of our annual pilgrimage to the desert southwest, for my son at least, is a trip to Tucson's Pima Air Museum, a fabulous collection of mostly military vintage aircraft, perhaps as many as 300-400 planes collected here, taking advantage of the fact that they rust very little in so dry a climate. The museum is located right next to the "airplane graveyard," miles of decommissioned planes from the Vietnam, Korean, and even WWII conflicts (and not really a graveyard but a restoration and recovery center), which is adjacent to the still active Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
These planes are like old friends to my 14-year old son. As we walk among them he can touch them, admire them, remember them from our last visit, learn something new about them, and even make some new "friends" (this year, the still recovering B-36 bomber). He absolutely loves the place, and I try to devote an entire day to it, even though my interest in planes is limited.
Many of the guides here are retired military, and they have many stories to tell about the planes. I imagine that being here is also quite a joy to them; the old planes are here, and so are they, and that is quite comforting, that old things endure.
Since I don't know much about planes, I look at other things while I am here, mostly the faces of the men who flew these planes. Today, I looked at photo after photo of the men who made up the 390th Bomber Group, a group of men that flew bombing missions in Europe during WWII, including the first bombings of Berlin. You could tell something about their individual personalities just by the photos -- maybe one who looked like a comic, another who looked to be the sober one, another who was anxious. I cannot really begin to understand what it was like for these men, to be away from the small towns and cities of the United States and, for the first time (and maybe last) be in a strange place over the sea, wondering if they would come home, wondering how their families were doing, awaking every day with the concerns of that day, just living one more day.
Looking at the sacrifices that were made then, both by these men and by everyone at home -- a nation completely given over to the war effort -- I wondered if, heaven forbid, we were called upon to rally as we did then, could we do it? Do we still retain the national character to be able to meet so great a challenge? It's not a political question, but a moral one really (I never comment on political issues here). What kind of people are we?
As I walk around with my son, I'm strangely comforted too by the fact that enough people cared that these planes, that this part of aviation and wartime history be preserved, at great cost. If we can do that, perhaps we can do whatever is asked of us.